FAQ: Marxism, Bolshevism, and Mutual Aid

In the summer of 2020, just months after the emergence of COVID-19 and the political and economic chaos that ensued, the momentous George Floyd uprising erupted in over 2,000 cities and towns. 54% of Americans polled at that time believed the burning of the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct was justified, and millions began to look to each other instead of the state for a way forward. Interest in what is known as “mutual aid” surged and over 1,000 mutual aid networks emerged across the country. A handful of armed working-class neighborhood defense patrols also sprang up, along with networks to distribute essential supplies, and social media campaigns to raise money to bail out arrested protesters. Additionally, new activists were drawn into the socialist movement, many of whom looked towards mutual aid as a political strategy to continue the fight started by the 2020 uprising.

Socialist Revolution has received many inquiries asking about our position on mutual aid, what role we think it can play in transforming society, and what political tasks should be prioritized by revolutionaries today. The rising interest in this topic was both a response to the pandemic and part of a new wave of debate around revolutionary politics and socialist strategy. It is an exciting sign of the times that so many people are looking to get active in the movement. We wish to take up some of these questions now in order to clarify our views on this important topic.

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Where did the idea of mutual aid originate?

The term mutual aid comes from Peter Kropotkin, the 19th century Russian anarchist. Born into an aristocratic landholding family in tsarist Russia, Kropotkin was a polymath with an interest in politics, economics, sociology, zoology, and geography. Like Karl Marx, Kropotkin was a materialist with a keen interest in the scientific method.

Peter Kropotkin circa 1900
Unlike some contemporary proponents of mutual aid, Kropotkin never proposed that mutual aid societies could overcome the state or establish socialism. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

In his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Kropotkin critiqued the emphasis on the “struggle for survival” as opposed to the cooperative model of survival in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He offered a scathing critique of the bourgeois political order and the theoretical framework established since Hobbes, while anticipating and repudiating social Darwinism. Building on his naturalist scientific observations, Kropotkin examined the development of human societies from prehistory to the modern era.

Unlike some contemporary proponents of mutual aid as an organizational theory and tactical framework, Kropotkin never proposed that mutual aid societies could overcome the state or establish socialism. Nonetheless, he believed that the state is the reason mutual aid groups could not meet the needs of the masses. Kropotkin turned his back on his class and supported mass strikes and worker rebellions. But he makes no reference to mutual aid as a strategy for overthrowing capitalism. In the chapter “Mutual Aid Amongst Ourselves,” he writes:

From the point of view of social economics all these efforts of the peasants certainly are of little importance. They cannot substantially, and still, less permanently, alleviate the misery to which the tillers of the soil are doomed all over Europe.

The key takeaway from his work is that, while human cooperation occurs organically throughout history, the state is mainly responsible for eradicating these natural institutions of egalitarian mutualism, specifically through the institution of private property. In that sense, his ideas turn the Marxist theory of the state on its head. For Marxists, the state is an intrinsic function of a society divided into classes. The “special bodies of armed men” that constitute the state are the product of irreconcilable class conflict; i.e., they are required to preserve the property and power of the ruling class. Whereas, from the anarchist perspective, the state is alien to society, subjectively imposed on it from without.

What is mutual aid?

In the modern context, we believe that Dean Spade provides an accurate definition in his 2020 book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis:

… more and more ordinary people are feeling called to respond in their communities, creating bold and innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors. This survival work, when done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change, is called mutual aid … and it produces social spaces where people grow new solidarities. At its best, mutual aid actually produces new ways of living where people get to create systems of care and generosity that address harm and foster well being.

Spade goes on to explain that there are three key elements of mutual aid:

  1. Mutual aid projects work to meet survival needs and build shared understanding about why people do not have what they need.
  2. Mutual aid projects mobilize people, expand solidarity, and build movements.
  3. Mutual aid projects are participatory, solving problems through collective action rather than waiting for saviors.

Similarly, Wikipedia defines mutual aid as “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions.”

Proponents of mutual aid also emphasize that mutual aid is not a new phenomenon, but rather a common human response to crisis. As Spade noted in a December 2020 interview, “mutual aid always pops up where disasters are.”

What are concrete examples of mutual aid?

In terms of successful examples of mutual aid, Dean Spade mentions the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) famous Free Breakfast For Children program, as well as the Young Lords’ healthcare for the community program. He also gives more recent examples, such as a legal collective called the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), which provides free legal assistance to trans and gender-nonconforming people. Others have also cited the German Social Democratic Party’s cultural programs in the period prior to World War I as a positive example of mutual aid. These included a diverse array of workers’ clubs for activities ranging from theater to cycling to playing the mandolin.

George Floyd protest in Grand Army Plaza June 7
Some common forms of mutual aid in the US in recent years are activities such as organizing neighborhood supply drives, food drives and community refrigerators, supplying food and water to protesters, and providing free medical care. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Some common forms of mutual aid in the United States in recent years are activities such as organizing neighborhood supply drives, food drives and community refrigerators, coordinating volunteer grocery delivery, supplying food and water to protesters, and providing free medical care, PPE supplies, and mental health support.

What is the Marxist position on mutual aid?

Marxists do not have a “one-size-fits-all” position on mutual aid in the abstract. It is necessary first to clarify what exactly is meant by the term “mutual aid,” and then look at the concrete circumstances and tasks facing the socialist movement at any given time. To begin, we believe it is important to distinguish between two differing conceptions of mutual aid.

  1. Mutual aid as an organic phenomenon in working-class life and history.
  2. Mutual aid as a political strategy pursued by socialist activists.

In the first sense, mutual aid is simply a phenomenon with many examples in modern history. In times of crisis, when capitalism and its institutions fail to provide for and protect working-class people, it is common for local neighborhoods to take matters into their own hands. While understanding their limitations, Marxists support these efforts and point to them as examples of the instinctive solidarity within the working class—a clear example that there is more to “human nature” than greed and egoism. In 2020, for example, the British Marxists analyzed the mutual aid networks that emerged in Britain in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, writing that the “direct action to fill the vacuum left by the government is inspirational, showing the capacity for ordinary working people to organize themselves and their communities.”

On the other hand, there are tendencies within the socialist movement who argue that socialists should conduct mutual aid as a strategy—or even the primary strategy—for ending capitalism. This is the position we seek to address in this document. For the remainder of this FAQ, “mutual aid” will be synonymous with mutual aid as a political strategy, unless otherwise noted.

We believe that there may be instances where some forms of mutual aid could play a supplemental, tactical role in the struggle for socialism. However, in considering overall political strategy, Marxists argue against mutual aid as such, and in favor of Bolshevism—the process of formulating a clear revolutionary program and building a disciplined organization that can carry that program into the broader working class and its organizations. We believe that in order to win the working class, we must offer, not “small deeds” or goods and services, but above all clear ideas about how workers can effectively organize as a class to fight for their interests and ultimately carry through the socialist revolution.

What are the arguments in favor of mutual aid in the socialist movement today?

Many socialists believe that mutual aid should be the main focus of activism, especially those who are repelled by the class collaboration and opportunism of elected officials like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Believing that “electoralism” has shown itself to be a dead end, mutual aid often presents itself as an “alternative strategy,” and perhaps a form of “direct action”—localized, concrete, and delivering immediate results. The question is then posed: how does mutual aid contribute to the overall struggle for socialism? There are two main responses to this question within the socialist movement.

Bernie Sanders
Believing that “electoralism” has shown itself to be a dead end, mutual aid often presents itself as an “alternative strategy,” and perhaps a form of “direct action”—localized, concrete, and delivering immediate results. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Many who are drawn to mutual aid today see it as a way to win the confidence and sympathy of a wider layer of society, and to make socialist politics “relevant” to people’s everyday lives and concerns. This position often argues that by engaging in mutual aid, socialists can “build trust” between ourselves and the broader working class. Workers will not listen to socialists, we are told, unless we “prove ourselves in practice” by meeting their immediate material needs. Proponents of this position do frequently add the caveat that mutual aid efforts alone are insufficient to meet the needs of billions of people, but nonetheless, they believe that this remains the primary strategy for winning the working class to the ideas of socialism, while improving people’s lives along the way. This position is very close, if not virtually identical, to the idea of “base-building.”

Another position—sometimes referred to as “building dual power”—argues that mutual aid contributes towards building “permanent institutions” outside of capitalism, which could eventually displace the dominant capitalist institutions. It is asserted that, for example, by continuously building medical clinics with the methods of mutual aid, it would be possible to eventually displace the existing for-profit healthcare system. We should note that this conception of “dual power” differs dramatically from the classical Marxist use of that term, which we address below.

Based on the questions we have received, the first view—that mutual aid is the best method for sinking roots in the broader population—appears to be more common in the contemporary socialist movement in the United States. However, these positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as some argue for both positions simultaneously. There are also other justifications given for mutual aid, including the assertion that successful mutual aid programs are the best way to win reforms from the bourgeois government. Or, that the process of organizing mutual aid gives socialists important logistical experience and skills. However, these arguments arise less frequently.

Can mutual aid play a role in the revolutionary process?

Marxists do not view the question of “mutual aid” moralistically. We begin with a scientific examination of societal change, and in particular, revolutionary change. The experience of the last 100-plus years shows that a revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism is possible only when a favorable convergence of objective factors coincides with the presence of a revolutionary party. To bring about a successful conclusion, such a party must be prepared in advance and be positioned to intervene consciously and deliberately in the revolutionary process.

So while Marxists agree that mutual aid can play a certain role in the overall revolutionary process, it is not a panacea, and its limitations should be clearly understood. Those who participate in mutual aid, whether in response to crises or as conscious socialist activists, are clearly seeking to help people and are driven by the best intentions. But history shows that good intentions alone are insufficient—we need correct ideas and strategy as well.

We must, therefore, ask: do advocates of these methods clearly explain that the fundamental problem facing the working class is the capitalist system itself? Does it connect struggles for reforms with the need for capitalism’s revolutionary overthrow? Is mutual aid activity combined with the building of a revolutionary party? What kind of forces would be necessary to conduct mutual aid in a meaningful way?

The answer to these questions can determine the actual role of mutual aid. If it does not clearly explain that capitalism is the problem, what is the goal of the movement? If it creates illusions that the mutual aid movement can solve the problems facing people within the limits of capitalism, is a revolution even necessary?

Some historical examples provide further clarity. As explained above, in addition to its political newspapers, parliamentary activity, and trade unionism, the German Social Democratic Party had a massive presence in the cultural life of the working class. Writing in Jacobin, Adam Sacks explains that “far from a staid, wooden affair, life in the SPD was a lively, vibrant expression of the party’s values. Social Democrats formed gymnastics associations and cycling clubs, choir societies and chess clubs. They organized youth activities, opened grocery stores, and offered funeral arrangements.”

Rathaus Bremen
The scope of the SPD’s programs was impressive. However, we must remember that when revolution swept Germany in 1918 and 1923, the SPD did not lead the working class to power. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

The scope of these programs was impressive, and surely must have further cemented the party’s standing within the working class. However, we must remember that when revolution swept Germany in 1918 and 1923, the party did not lead the working class to power. While it had a massive apparatus and was engaged in a huge range of activities, the party had politically degenerated over the previous period into a reformist organization that ended up saving capitalism rather than overthrowing it. These defeats led directly to the rise of fascism and the crushing of what had been the world’s strongest labor movement. What the working class tragically lacked was not more mutual aid programs, but rather, a tightly organized Marxist leadership fighting for a revolutionary program.

We should note that in the same era, the Bolshevik Party achieved the greatest victory of the workers’ movement to date—the Russian Revolution—and did so without any significant amount of work that could be described as mutual aid. Rather, they succeeded in winning over the working class through their tireless agitation and propaganda in favor of a clear revolutionary socialist program.

Can mutual aid “build a movement”?

Dean Spade and others suggest that mutual aid efforts can build a kind of permanent “movement,” eventually resulting in system change at an undefined point. This viewpoint may stem from a desire, common among activists in the United States, to understand why elemental movements like the George Floyd protests dissipated without changing anything fundamental, and how that can be avoided in the future.

But the fact is that social movements are never permanent—they rise and fall. We must accept this reality. During exceptional moments, the working class can mobilize over a certain period of time. But in general, life under capitalism makes it difficult to be politically active. Workdays are long, and some people have more than one job or must work overtime. There is also the time used to commute to and from work, household chores, and childcare. Capitalist society itself cuts across the ability of people to have time to be politically active in a sustained way.

The socialist revolution, with the working class taking power, would reduce the workweek without loss of pay, provide free, quality child care, and socialize housework. This would allow sustained political involvement by the population. Until this is accomplished, we understand that the problems and contradictions of capitalism itself eventually pushes people to fight for change, giving rise to social explosions. However, unless the raging river of class struggle is channeled into the final overthrow of the system, it will eventually recede back into its banks. This being the case, our goal should be to participate in and push movements as far as possible, using them as a way to build the forces of revolution and to educate the class for future battles that can end the system once and for all.

Can Marxists use mutual aid programs to heighten interest in socialism?

As we’ve seen, one argument in favor of mutual aid as a political strategy suggests that by conducting mutual aid, socialists can bring new people into the socialist movement and “build a base” of socialist workers. This would appear to imply that workers who are conservative, liberal, or nonpolitical might reconsider their politics simply after receiving help, in the form of goods and services, from people conducting mutual aid under the banner of socialism. The underlying assumption is that political beliefs are shaped largely through these kinds of small interactions, short conversations, etc.

Democratic Socialists Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone
It was not “small acts” or mutual aid programs, but rather, seismic events—the election of Donald Trump—that pushed tens of thousands of socialists to get organized for the first time. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Generally speaking, however, political beliefs are shaped largely by objective historical factors—above all, the experience of life under capitalism, and the inherent instability of the system. The British Marxist Ted Grant once explained that “events, events, events” are what really drive changes in consciousness. While there is not an automatic relationship between broader economic trends and mass consciousness, at those moments when the crisis of capitalism is on full display, large numbers of people are compelled to reconsider their political beliefs virtually overnight.

For one example of this process, we can look at the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America in 2016–18. For decades, DSA had stagnated. However, in the weeks and months after the 2016 election, the organization was flooded with tens of thousands of new members. It was not “small acts” or mutual aid programs, but rather, seismic events—Bernie Sanders’s capitulation and the subsequent election of Donald Trump—that was the final straw for tens of thousands of socialists, pushing them to get organized for the first time. By studying history, we can find many similar examples—and we can anticipate many more instances of this dynamic occurring in the coming period.

In view of this historical pattern, we believe that engaging in mutual aid to attempt to “build a movement” or “build a base” represents a search for a shortcut, and fundamentally misunderstands how political consciousness and engagement evolve in the real world. In other words, it is an attempt by small groups of activists to substitute themselves for the broader historical processes that are necessary to create a mass audience for socialist ideas.

Can Marxists use mutual aid to gain the trust of the working class?

If fundamentally changing people’s views on society could be achieved simply by providing free meals and charity, then religious institutions such as the Catholic Church should be growing at breakneck speed, as they have been pursuing such tactics for a very long time.

In reality, serious workers know that the problem is the system itself, and they want serious solutions and ideas—not small, short-lived favors. It is not “small deeds” or the heroic acts of individual socialists, but rather the cumulative experience of life under capitalism that pushes the working class towards socialist conclusions. However, while that experience can make evident the need for a new system, it does not automatically provide a scientific understanding of how to overthrow capitalism and what to replace it with. For that, Marxist theory is needed. This is why it is important to build an organization of trained Marxist cadres, who can provide that theoretical clarity in times of upswing in the movement.

That being said, socialists must absolutely prove themselves in practice. Winning the political confidence of the working class is a prerequisite for the socialist revolution. During the lead up to the socialist revolution, Marxists must be the most resolute and effective class fighters. But this flows, first and foremost, from having correct ideas and perspectives combined with a wide range of activity, including class-independent electoral campaigns, working within the trade unions, organizing public events, engaging in united fronts and mass movements, etc. The most militant layers of the working class will turn to the forces of Marxism to the degree that the organized revolutionaries are offering a way forward for the class struggle. There are no easy roads, no shortcuts, and no gimmicks that can achieve such an enormous task.

Do mutual aid programs prepare the working class to take power?

To answer this question properly, one would have to examine each particular mutual aid project and the basis on which it is organized. However, it is clear that the vast majority of mutual aid projects do not clearly explain the necessity for the socialist transformation of society.

As an example, the SRLP project mentioned above seems like a worthy program, which helps many people. However, its aim is to pressure the legal system and big capitalist bureaucracies, not to overthrow them. It does not pose this as a goal, or identify how trans workers need to link up with the broader working class to fight back on a class basis. One section of the workers cannot overthrow the system on its own.

A mutual aid program that would help to prepare for power would need to combine the fight against the capitalist class for reforms today, but also explain that only the socialist transformation of society can lead to a significantly better life. This will require a mass party of the working class, fighting for a government with socialist policies. As an example, we can and should organize tenants to fight their landlords and struggle against high rent and bad conditions. But this struggle should make clear that we will always “play defense” until we have a workers’ government and a socialist housing program, with rent capped at no more than 10% of wages. This cannot be accomplished under a government of the capitalists.

Sunset park rent strike
A mutual aid program that would help to prepare for power would need to combine the fight against the capitalist class for reforms today, but also explain that only the socialist transformation of society can lead to a significantly better life. / Image: Michael Fleshman, Flickr

Does mutual aid address the question of how the working class must deal with the capitalist state?

If one studies the evolution of capitalism from the Renaissance to the present day, one can clearly see accumulation of economic power and increased centralization of this power. We also see the centralization of political power in the form of capitalist states. All of history shows that the capitalist state will not simply fade away of its own accord. A centralized power can only be defeated by a force that understands the nature of that power. The large and diverse working class must unite and coordinate its struggle to beat the big banks, corporations, and their state apparatus. Otherwise, the centralized power will divide the workers and defeat them.

As we have seen, there are many proponents of mutual aid, and they often have differing justifications and theoretical backgrounds. However, none of them approach this question scientifically.

For example, Dean Spade writes in the very last paragraph of his book:

As we deliver groceries, participate in meetings, sew masks, write letters to prisoners, apply bandages, facilitate relationship skills classes, learn how to protect our work from surveillance, plant gardens, and change diapers, we are strengthening our ability to outnumber the police and military, protect our communities, and build systems that make sure that everyone can have food, housing, medicine, dignity, connection, belonging, and creativity in their lives. That is the world we are fighting for. That is the world we can win.

There are many confused ideas in this passage, but we should highlight the hazy and lackadaisical attitude towards the question of the state. The implication is that as long as we vigorously pursue mutual aid, at some undefined point we will be in a position to deal with the state using undefined methods. But in point of fact, the working class always outnumbers the state forces—the question is what kind of program is necessary to unite the working class in struggle against the capitalist state. For an in-depth look at these questions, we recommend Lenin’s State and Revolution and Marxism and the State by Alan Woods.

Is it possible to meaningfully fill the “gaps” of capitalism through mutual aid?

If we examine the real scope of poverty and want worldwide, it is clear that the problems of capitalism are systemic in nature. In the United States alone, 38 million people are food insecure. This, despite the fact that the country produces enough food to feed the entire world population. Over half a million people experience homelessness each night, though there are more empty homes than homeless people. And 43.4% of adults ages 19–64, over 80 million people, have inadequate health care coverage. Things are even worse on a world scale.

These statistics show the extreme utopianism of believing we can address this artificial scarcity within the limits of capitalism. The problems of capitalism are not caused by insufficient sharing of resources by and within the working class. The problem is that, by definition, the ruling class owns and controls the means of production and hoards the majority of the wealth generated by the working class. Even a workers’ party of millions could not address these issues if it remained within the limits of capitalism, much less a decentralized array of small mutual aid networks.

Colorful shelf at organic food supermarket
In the United States alone, 38 million people are food insecure. This, despite the fact that the country produces enough food to feed the entire world population. / Image: Marco Verch, Flickr

Experience shows that even small-scale mutual aid programs require a significant amount of time and resources—and the volunteers do not have infinite reserves of energy. Burnout is common, and mutual aid groups frequently encounter the problem of dwindling funds in the long term, as it is generally much harder to sustain a mutual aid network after periods of acute crisis have ended.

To actually meet the needs of the global population, the only solution is for the working class to take ownership and control of the economy, and to organize a rational plan in the interests of humanity. Only expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy by a workers’ government can prepare the ground to begin to meet everyone’s needs.

Is it possible to achieve socialism by building alternative institutions to provide goods and services?

There have been attempts in the past to contrive a “perfect” society by artificially building communities that function “outside” of capitalism—from the Owenite utopian communities in the 19th century, to the communes that proliferated in the 60s and 70s, to certain “intentional communities” today. While it may be possible to achieve a relative degree of separation from the market on an extremely small scale, it is not possible to do so in an absolute sense. Furthermore, it requires long work hours and the renunciation of the benefits that come from living within a technologically advanced society.

This pre-Marxist conception of socialism never succeeded in coming anywhere close to displacing capitalism. These “model societies” cannot compete with the efficiency of the market economy, and cannot build a technologically advanced society, which requires the complex global supply chains and large-scale industry that capitalism has created. As a result, they generally make life harder on their inhabitants, not easier. As Engels explained in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the program of Marxism, or scientific socialism, explains that instead of trying to turn the clock back towards pre-capitalist methods of production, the working class must take control of the powerful productive capacity generated under capitalism and plan our production rationally.

Contemporary drawing of New Lanark.
The “model societies” of the utopian socialists cannot compete with the efficiency of the market economy, and cannot build a technologically advanced society, which requires the complex global supply chains and large-scale industry that capitalism has created. / Image: The JR James Archive, Flickr

Marx wrote about this as early as 1851, analyzing the dead end of attempts to divert the class struggle into “doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks, and workers’ associations, hence into a movement in which it renounces the revolutionizing of the old world by means of the latter’s own great, combined resources, and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily suffers shipwreck.”

Nonetheless, some in the mutual aid movement characterize their own activity as “building a new society in the midst of the old one.” Sometimes this is described as “building dual power.” This differs dramatically from the Marxist conception of dual power. For Marxists, dual power is an emergent stage in the revolutionary process when the capitalist state has been greatly weakened—but still exists—while at the same time, the embryo of a workers’ state—in the form of mass workers’ councils—is coming into being. By definition, periods of dual power cannot last forever. Ultimately, the workers must put an end to capitalist power or it will reassert full control and the counterrevolution will triumph.

The idea that we can “build dual power” within capitalism is an illusion, and there are serious consequences for indulging in it. Those who speak of power in the abstract without actually fighting to replace the capitalist state with a workers’ state are doomed to defeat.

The experience of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords shows that even where modestly successful programs arise, the bourgeois state can wait for the right moment to move against them and destroy them. If a mutual aid program ever grew to a significant size, the capitalists would not hesitate to dismantle it by any means necessary. “Power” should not be defined in a light-minded way. The capitalist class cannot and will not accept a “second power” to exist in their midst.

What is the difference between mutual aid and charity? Where do the resources that advocates want to “share” come from?

Advocates of mutual aid state clearly that it is not charity. A common refrain in mutual aid circles is “Solidarity, not charity.” Charity is defined as the rich giving money to the poor, and doing it in a way that makes the rich look good and the recipients look bad. Charity reinforces all kinds of false ideas—in particular, the idea that poverty is not caused by capitalism, but rather by the way poor people live their lives.

Mutual aid is conceived of as a collective effort by a social movement to improve conditions. But where do the resources that help people come from? All the wealth of society comes from human labor being applied to the natural resources of the earth. Under capitalism, the workers are only paid in wages and benefits for part of the value they create, while the surplus value ends up in the pockets of the capitalists.

The class struggle is ultimately a battle over what happens to the surplus value: how much of it goes to ordinary people and how much goes to the wealthy? How society’s wealth is divided is conditioned by many factors, including the current stage of consciousness of the working class, its willingness to fight, and the quality and strength of its organizations and leaders.

We all understand that the ruling class will not fund the revolution. This means that any sharing done by working people requires workers to tighten their own belts in order to help other people. Labor unions, aid to striking workers, publication of the revolutionary press, and other such needs are only funded by the sacrifice of the working class. Such sacrifices are necessary for the class struggle. But making do with the crumbs of capitalism is not our aim. We seek to transform the world entirely, using all the wealth of society to ensure a high quality of life for everyone.

Reforms are used by the ruling class to pacify the workers, and can only be wrenched from them when workers enter into struggle. Historically, the stronger and more revolutionary a movement is, the more reforms will be given. But as long as the capitalists remain in power, even the most sweeping reforms are not guaranteed forever. When the struggle eventually cools down or is defeated, the ruling class invariably seeks to reverse and undermine any gains made by the workers.

What was Lenin’s position on mutual aid?

Interestingly, some of the groups that have argued in favor of mutual aid in recent years describe themselves as Communist, Marxist, or Leninist. In our view, this growth of interest in the figure of Lenin is a hugely positive indication of the direction of the US socialist movement. However, it is necessary to clarify exactly what Lenin believed on the question of Marxist strategy.

Arrest of a Propagandist painting
Lenin and the Russian Marxists argued against the strategy of Narodnism—a form of utopian socialism in the mid to late 19th century Russia. / Image: Public Domain

In Lenin’s writings, he very occasionally used the term “mutual aid” when referring to broader mutual aid societies that were common in Russia in his time. This aligns with the above-mentioned conception of mutual aid as an organic phenomenon in society. A better starting point when looking at the modern day political-strategic arguments for mutual aid would be the position of Lenin and the Russian Marxists of that era in relation to Narodnism—a form of utopian socialism that dominated the Russian socialist movement in the mid to late 19th century.

Many people today are not aware that Russian Marxism—what was later termed Bolshevism, or Leninism—emerged in conscious opposition to the utopian theories of the Narodniks. One wing of the Narodnik movement bore close resemblance to the “base-builders” and mutual-aid advocates of today, emphasizing the importance of “small deeds” such as organizing soup kitchens and literacy campaigns.

In her memoirs, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife and comrade, recalls an episode that is representative of the period of theoretical struggle between Marxism and Narodnism where:

The question came up as to what ways we should take. Somehow general agreement was lacking. Someone said that work on the Illiteracy Committee was of great importance. Vladimir Ilyich laughed, and his laughter sounded rather harsh (I have never heard him laugh that way again). “Well, if anyone wants to save the country by working in the Illiteracy Committee,” he said, “let him go ahead” (Quoted in Bolshevism by Alan Woods).

In his classic works on revolutionary strategy “Where to Begin?” and What Is To Be Done? Lenin boldly argues the need to build a network of professional revolutionaries grounded in Marxist theory. In other words, a Marxist leadership rooted in the working class. As he keenly observed as early as 1901, it would be “too late to form the organization in times of explosion and outbursts; the party must be in a state of readiness to launch activity at a moment’s notice.” It was precisely the fulfillment of this plan that guaranteed the success of the Russian Revolution, sixteen years later.

What can we learn from the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords and their efforts at mutual aid?

The comrades who formed the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords in the 1960s and 1970s were courageous fighters. They stepped up to fight capitalism and tried to find a way forward, but there were no contemporary revolutionary Marxists who could offer them a serious method and strategy. The older generation had degenerated towards Stalinism and sectarianism. Given the circumstances, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords did the best they could.

It is true that many of their programs to serve breakfast to children and provide access to healthcare were popular. But we must also be honest that, in the broad scope, these programs were a drop in the bucket. The BPP’s free breakfast program, for example, was dwarfed even by the federal nutrition assistance program, which itself is far from adequate. Most importantly, in the end, as subsequent history shows, these programs were not sufficient to help build lasting revolutionary organizations, link them to the masses, expand their influence, and help mobilize the masses to protect them from state repression.

Young Lords party logo
In the end, mutual aid programs did not prevent the defeat of courageous organizations such as the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the end, mutual aid programs did not prevent the defeat of these courageous organizations. It also did not have a lasting political effect on the people that they served, in the sense of constructing organizations to lead struggles and to fight for the future transformation of society. In all the cities where the BPP and the Young Lords were active, the 1970s and after saw complete domination by the Democrats. There was no real left-wing opposition in those areas.

The clear lesson is that programs that “serve the people” are not sufficient in and of themselves. The revolutionary organization must be built on the basis of theoretical clarity. Furthermore, it must have a democratic structure and internal life that allows for full debates and discussions to take place, with majority decisions being implemented collectively—instead of tearing the organization apart.

Should we wait for saviors? What is the role of leadership in the socialist movement?

Dean Spade writes that mutual aid “exposes the failures of the current system and shows an alternative.” He also makes clear that we cannot just sit around “waiting for saviors.” We agree one hundred percent that workers should not wait for saviors. Saviors are people who allegedly come out of nowhere to do things for the working class. Marx and Engels explained long ago that the liberation of the working class is the task of the class itself.

However, another key issue that proponents of mutual aid generally do not deal with is the question of leadership. The working class is not homogeneous. It is made up of very different kinds of people. There are the more farsighted, class-conscious elements, and there are those with deep illusions in the capitalist system.

Whether one cares to admit it or not, the working class and social movements always have leaders, regardless of whether those individuals identify as such or not. One cannot unite the power of many and fuse it into a single force without leaders. The real question is this: who are the leaders and how are they selected? Have they studied history and theory so as to help guide the future movements in the right direction? Or is the leadership made up of people who have illusions in the system, who have not absorbed the lessons of the past?

History contains countless examples of huge movements—even revolutionary movements—crashing against the rocks of reaction due to the weakness of the leadership. For a contemporary example, we should study the Sudanese Revolution. In Sudan, a revolutionary movement has risen up a number of times since 2019, and the masses have fought very hard. However, the bourgeois-liberal leadership does not consciously direct the working class to the tasks that are necessary to achieve victory, and no alternative Marxist leadership was built up in the preceding period. At some stage, if the masses do not take power, exhaustion will set in and the reactionary forces will defeat this movement. This is just one of the many examples that demonstrates the decisive need for theory, program, and leadership in the struggle for a better society.

What political activity should revolutionaries pursue instead of “electoralism”?

Mutual aid has become fashionable, in part, as a left alternative to the other field of work that has dominated the socialist movement in recent years: electoral politics. In particular, there are many in and around DSA who focus most of their energy and time on electoral politics. Unfortunately, their approach to electoral politics is based entirely on class collaboration and opportunism. They ally themselves to the capitalist Democratic Party and run on its ballot line, reinforcing illusions that there exists a “progressive” section of the American ruling class. Rejecting this, some people on the left wing of DSA and elsewhere have turned towards mutual aid.

We would argue that the problem is not electoral politics or “electoralism” per se, and that a better response to opportunist electoral strategy is principled, revolutionary electoral strategy. While it is not possible to simply vote socialism into existence, socialists and communists should use bourgeois elections to run class-independent campaigns that serve to educate the working class, expose illusions in capitalism, and build a revolutionary leadership.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez @ Women's March NYC
Unfortunately, the approach of a section of the DSA to electoral politics is based entirely on class collaboration and opportunism. They ally themselves to the capitalist Democratic Party and run on its ballot line, reinforcing illusions that there exists a “progressive” section of the American ruling class. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is true that with limited resources, little can be accomplished at present in the electoral field. In the future, the resources of mass movements and the labor unions will be channeled into independent politics instead of the parties of the bosses. In the meantime, revolutionaries can patiently explain our ideas and build a foundation to conduct this kind of work in the future.

Concretely, this means forming organized branches of Marxists in every city, neighborhood, and workplace, and taking the time to study Marxist theory and working-class history. In time, this kind of work can lay the foundation to pursue a revolutionary electoral strategy. We must understand that whether they are elected or not, the priority of independent socialist candidates should be to use their position to help mobilize and lead the working class. Revolutionaries must battle the ruling class ideologically, in the workplace, on the streets, and in the electoral arena.

What is the top priority for revolutionaries today?

The history of Bolshevism provides an instructive example of how small numbers of revolutionaries managed to build their forces into a mass party that eventually won the support of virtually the entire Russian working class. But it was not through offering goods and services, or physically providing the things people needed, that they won the support of the working class. It was primarily the ideas, the program, and the demands that the Bolshevik cadres put forward that showed the working class how to advance their interests as a class.

The Bolsheviks succeeded in sinking roots in the working class and became a trusted current of the workers’ revolutionary movement primarily on the basis of their agitation and propaganda. Bolshevik orators and authors of leaflets and revolutionary newspapers convinced the mass of the workers—starting with the most advanced layers—that the working class would have to take control into its hands if the masses were to achieve demands such as “bread, peace, and land!”

In his masterpiece, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin sought to generalize the lessons of the Russian Revolution, explaining that the approach of the Bolshevik Party was to make use of any and all opportunities to build the influence of Marxism within the workers’ movement. Trade union work, electoral campaigns, mass mobilizations, and labor actions are just some of the fields of activity revolutionaries will be able to engage in in the coming period. However, in order to fully take advantage of the many opportunities that will arise, it is necessary to first build a serious Marxist organization that can carry out that kind of work.

In the United States today, the biggest priority for socialists, without doubt, is to build the embryo of a mass Marxist leadership, in the form of a Marxist cadre organization. By organizing ourselves and taking the time to study Marxist ideas and working class history, we can prepare to carry these ideas and lessons to a much larger audience in the future. Part of this process includes intervening in movements where and when we have the resources to do this. In those cases, we do so on the basis of a revolutionary program, and seek to connect with movements while explaining that only the total overthrow of capitalism can lead to a world of peace and plenty for all.

This process takes a considerable amount of time and energy. Workers do not have unlimited time for political work, and consequently must have clear priorities. Propaganda work—which, in the Marxist sense, means sharing and discussing large numbers of ideas among small circles of people—is a vital investment in the future of the movement, and it is an inevitable stage in the building of a mass revolutionary Marxist party. As Trotsky once wrote, “every working-class party, every faction, during its initial stages, passes through a period of pure propaganda, i.e., the training of its cadres.”

That is the stage at which American Bolshevism finds itself at the moment. But if we build our forces on the foundation of Marxist theory, we can start to gain real influence and political authority, which will open up many more opportunities. There are no shortcuts, and we must not waste time. Capitalism threatens life on this planet—but with your help, we have a world to win. If you agree with the ideas in this document, or would like to discuss them further, contact us about joining the IMT.

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